Ridley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now. I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time. However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut. I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way. I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.
When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate. After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning. Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite. When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.
The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing. While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something. It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story. The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security. This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end. You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty. There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge. When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience. And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.
Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo. This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design. The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience. And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment. This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat. Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat. I don’t find this to be jump scares. This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience. It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.
How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo. Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin. There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements. Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times. The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere. Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness. As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act. It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span. Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials. What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.
Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars. Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in. The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs. It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience. It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings. And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects. It has a dark, gothic elegance to it. Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters. Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology. The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen. This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter. How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it. It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill. It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy. I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle. First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall! There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above. This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew. Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there. I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.
Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity. I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny. Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges. Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.
Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas. He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader. Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors. At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.
Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise. This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen. She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley. Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver. She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.
This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character. Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.
Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant. It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash. You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment. Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene. This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.
The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people. They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers. They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like. They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them. These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue. The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them. That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing. You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors. And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here. While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.
The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted. Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall. Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness. It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt. Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted. The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.
Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective. However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary. I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it. Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined. It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience. Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.
It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself. Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example. Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of. He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you. It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect. The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces. Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it. He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws. Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly. There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many. Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.
Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie, and you just have to take a chance with it. Make a real commitment to what you perceive as an awesome piece of cinematic work, and sometimes, it truly pays off beyond your expectations. Of course, my luck being what it is, it was not easy tracking down a DVD of this movie in-store. I ultimately found it in a re-sale store about twenty miles away. Yes, I could have done an iTunes rental, but I felt so strong about how great this film would be that I felt a purchase was inevitable. Beyond just the trailer, I have enjoyed some strong works from Jim Caviezel dating back to The Count of Monte Cristo and Frequency to the current hit CBS crime thriller television series Person of Interest. Caviezel always brings a rich depth to his roles that is highly investing and entertaining. So, that further fueled my interest as well as the fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements.
709AD, a space craft streaks across the night’s sky and crash lands in Norway with the only survivors being the warrior Kainan (Jim Caviezel) and a deadly alien stowaway. Before he can track down this enemy, Kainan is captured by viking warrior Wulfric (Jack Huston), and held prisoner in the local village led by King Hrothgar (John Hurt). He is questioned about his presence, and says he was hunting dragons, but in truth, it is a fiery bio-luminescent beast called a Moorwen from a planet his people attempted to wipe out and colonize. Grudgingly accepted into the clan after saving the King’s life, Kainan confides in Hrothgar’s fiercely beautiful daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), about his past. As the Moorwen wreaks terror and destruction on neighboring villages, the threat of conflict between the clans escalates and Kainan is called upon to kill the creature. They forge a strategy and weapons to defeat it, but victory will come at a cost and Kainan will find a new future for himself.
Getting right to the point, what satisfied me the most about this movie is how perfect the storytelling and character arcs are. Every story or character element is introduced, evolved, and paid off with great emotional weight and impact. As the bond between Kainan and the Vikings strengthens and expands, I felt the need for where this story should end, hoping for the characters to take the paths I anticipated for them. Nothing is ever lightly given in this movie, nor is any plot development handled weakly. Every emotion and character evolution is earned by the dedication of the actors and the filmmakers’ to this powerful adventure.
The visual effects are surprisingly awesome and consistent. There were only two extremely quick moments where the CGI looked a little undercooked, but they are “blink and you’ll miss them” moments. Every other instance is exceptionally good, and listening to the audio commentary you’ll learn how extensive and seamless these digital effects are. The Moorwen is wonderfully realized with a brilliant bio-luminescent design making it appear as if it’s made of fire. It burns throught the darkness of night attracting the attention of its prey. so that it can attack swiftly. It comes off almost like a creature of legend, like a dragon, but it does have a little more science fiction edge to it. In its few revealing moments, personality and intelligence come through in its face and actions as well as a fearsome demeanor. This is a welcome choice as I wholly support the idea of the creature having personality like the Predator or Alien. It makes them more memorable and effective. The scenes on the alien planet are especially well done with a striking sense of scope and interesting, unique design. Lots of creative thought was put into it to give it its own identity to offer up an epic sensibility for the film. The amber color scheme of the planet is a nice contrast to the greenish-blue daytime scenes on Earth.
Cinematography is gorgeous. A great deal of care and integrity were put into the photography of this picture giving it scope and weight. Apparently, production was originally intended to take place in New Zealand with WETA Workshop doing effects on a larger budget, but to my eyes, I see no budget starved areas. Ultimately being shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, the landscape is beautifully captured with some excellent aerial photography, and various shots which show the breadth and depth of the land which all sell a certain majesty of the film’s setting. Gorgeous really does encompass it all. The soft, warm lighting in the Viking Hall is like a master artist’s brushstrokes come to life. The shadowy and fiery moments at night hunting the Moorwen establish a tense, fearful atmosphere that drives the emotional intensity of the story. There’s plenty of subtle atmosphere to give the land life. Outlander was shot with exceptional skill and scope by Pierre Gill, and I applaud his marvelous work here.
Jim Caviezel is an amazingly effective and powerful actor who brings a lot of relatable aspects to Kainan. First off, there’s the courageous warrior who embodies a great hero’s journey. He feels a need for redemption for what his people did to the Moorwens, and gradually, he seems to find that salvation with these people. They come to trust in him and accept him as one of their own through a series of trials, both friendly and dangerous. Caviezel offers up a growing humanity, an opening of Kainan’s emotions that allow an audience and the other characters to strongly connect with him. Jim Caviezel also has a natural ethereal, soulful aura around him that serves the otherworldly aspect of the character well. The strength of Kainan is constantly balanced with his own internal pain and doubts through the competence and thorough devotion of Caviezel to the role. I simply love how much he digs into the character to bring out elements evocative of the heroes of Highlander and Predator. Characters with a strong sense of honor, courage, and heart that come off as legendary heroes. I would certainly say that Outlander could be categorized as a meshing of those sorts of films. Caviezel himself said the film was “a light mix of Braveheart and Highlander.” Many have mentioned comparisons to Beowulf. By the film’s end, I viewed Kainan as a warrior of legend full of depth that was greatly worth investing myself in for 115 minutes.
The supporting cast really begins with Jack Huston. He’s a great actor here that Caviezel works off of very well. As Wulfric, Huston brings a youthful brashness to the story. He’s a warrior with much ambition as the heir to his father’s throne, but he lacks the wisdom and experience to be ready to accept that role. However, his impulsiveness and character is gradually tempered through this adventure. Kainan and Wulfric learn much from one another, and they prove to be far better off for it. They forge a kinship that fuels them into battle and further strengthens the foundation of the story. Huston is charismatic and finely enjoyable.
I found Sophia Myles pleasantly surprising and powerful. I really only know her from her role of the self-serving vampire Erika in Underworld. Here, I absolutely love her! Her introduction as Freya is strong and aggressive. She handles the physical demands of Freya in stride in various fight scenes wielding a sword with expert competence. She’s a woman who can defend herself and her people, if need be, and while she does have a softer, more heartfelt side, that is not how she wishes to be defined. Sophia is a beautiful woman, especially with that red hair, who brings so much dimension to Freya. She adds a fine texture and weight to this role which does have its tender areas of compassion and love opposite the pride and strength. There is warmth and passion in her eyes, selling so much of how she relates and bonds with the male characters around her. She holds her ground firmly with impressive depth and confidence while forging an amazing emotional core.
King Hrothgar is excellently portrayed by the engaging and insightful John Hurt. Wisdom and honor mixed with conviction and compassion are what define his performance. Ron Perlman has a smaller role as Hrothgar’s rival Gunnar which he infuses with gruff brutality and heartbreaking ire. In general, the whole supporting cast maintains the depth and dimension that the leads established creating a very full and diverse world that feels realistic.
The production design has great detail and vibrancy applied to it. Everything of the Vikings has a texture that speak of a culture with realistic history. From the costumes to the sets to their props, they are all cohesive. They create a complete world for these characters to inhabit. Again, nothing feels budget starved. There are large sets built to give scenes visual depth and wonderful lighting setups that bring it all to life. The advanced technology of Kainan’s world is very well designed with a very consistent aesthetic. For some viewers, it might take a little getting used to switching between the Viking world and the science fiction tech, but ultimately, everything meshes as well as anyone could expect.
The story here is amazingly well written and interwoven around its amazing characters. Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman put together an inspired screenplay that turned into a fantastic, thoroughly pleasing feature film for me. It is great that Kainan enters into a world of characters who have an established history, who have stories already in motion for themselves. They are already on a certain path, and the arrival of Kainan and the Moorwen merely jump start those stories forward. All of the character threads tie into each other and the main plot to create great arcs that culminate in something that legends are made of.
Director / co-writer Howard McCain crafted a film full of adventure, action, tension, suspense, excitement, drama, and character depth that thrives on the screen. Outlander has beautiful and brilliant visual flare that give the film so much vibrant life. There are so many deeply talented people involved in this film that make it so amazing. The score by Geoff Zanelli supports the epic scale of this adventure, and enhances the emotion throughout. This was a movie that easily fell below the radar due to a limited theatrical release by the Weinstein Company. That is why I am writing this review so that it can gain some more exposure. I could reiterate many points I made here to push this further upon you, but the best way to promote this is to say I loved it. This is a thrilling action adventure with plenty of character drama to satisfy a wide spread audience. The science fiction and Nordic elements come together through the emotional elements which bond the characters together tightly. This is one film you surely need to personally experience to fully understand its strength, but in more simple terms, Outlander entirely kicks ass!